Graduate students at UC Santa Cruz have had enough.
After two months on a grading strike with no action beyond dialogue from the university administration, the Graduate Student Association (GSA) voted to initiate a full teaching strike beginning Feb. 10.
The picket drew several hundred graduate students, undergraduates, faculty, staff and other supporters to both the east and west entrances to campus on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in support of a cost of living adjustment (COLA) of $1,412 per month to bring UCSC graduate students out of rent burden.
“We’re currently at a breaking point in terms of the housing crisis here and in terms of funding for graduate education,” said Veronica Hamilton, third-year psychology doctoral student and Santa Cruz unit chair of the United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865. “So what we’re seeing now are people saying that things need to change, and they’re taking risky action to do that.”
Build up to Full Teaching Strike
Throughout winter quarter, the UCSC administration said it cannot meet with striking graduate students since their contract is UC-wide, and thus outside of the direct purview of the UCSC administration. Nevertheless, GSA co-Presidents Tony Boardman and Yulia Gilichinskaya were invited to “touch base” about the strike with Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies Quentin Williams and Assistant Dean of Graduate Studies Jim Moore on Feb. 6.
Ten minutes into the informal meeting, interim Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor (CP/EVC) Lori Kletzer and Director of Employee and Labor Relations Jennifer Schiffner entered the room and began discussing de-escalation options, Boardman said.
“What they were pushing for was to get us to pause the strike in return for a pause on retaliation, and that would only last for one week,” Boardman said. “We told them that we don’t have the power to stop the strike. This would only be decided in the way that every decision has been decided with striking graduate students, which is through decisions put to the collective body.”
With no offers on the table nor promises of negotiations from administration, graduate students decided to move forward with a full teaching strike.
Throughout the process, a coalition of undergraduates have organized alongside striking graduate students. The newly formed People’s Coalition, a group of undergraduate organizers, spearheaded a “Fuck the UC” rally on Feb. 6 that culminated in a march to the University House near the Music Recital Hall.
The following day, UCSC Public Affairs sent out a campuswide email with the subject, “Unsanctioned strike by some graduate students.” The email included a link for undergraduates to fill out a Google form to “notify the campus of canceled classes so that the university can help make sure they are getting the education they deserve.”
Many faculty members, graduate students and undergraduates view this email as an act of attempted surveillance and escalation meant to pit undergraduates against striking graduate students.
“I very much disagree with admin on this one,” said second-year undergraduate student Morgan Bundrant. “I think it’s intentional, their effort to spread disinformation about how this is harming undergraduates. Because I haven’t heard any negative sentiment toward COLA from any undergraduates ever, and I’ve only heard that from admin and people who haven’t talked to undergrads.”
Day 1 — Monday
About 100 graduate students, undergraduates, faculty and staff gathered at the base of campus at 7:30 a.m. on Feb. 10, marking the beginning of the graduate student teaching strike.
By noon, there were over 300 people picketing. Though organizers didn’t initially plan to block entrances to campus, by 1 p.m. protesters were lined up in crosswalks at the Bay Street and High Street intersection.
Throughout the morning, between 15 and 60 protesters picketed at the west entrance to campus while about 20 police officers stood by. After warning picketers to walk faster across the crosswalk, police officers cited Arturo Díaz, an undergraduate student and organizer for the Worker-Student Solidarity Coalition (WSSC), around 10:30 a.m. for refusing to abide by the warning.
Díaz returned to the picket line several minutes later.
The university also deployed about 30 police officers to the base of campus during Monday’s strike activities, provoking heightened caution when some strikers and supporters were shoved by police with batons and one undergraduate student was arrested.
The UCSC Police Department arrested undergraduate Rachelle Lamb around midday after she drove past a police blockade on Bay Street to deliver water to protesters.
“Having a very palpable, considerable police presence, it tells you about the kinds of resources that the University of California has at the ready for the repression of protest, or of casting an overall shadow of intimidation over protests to make sure that when we show up we’re constantly being looked at,” said feminist studies professor Nick Mitchell, “to make sure that for people who are not protesting, it looks scary to get involved, […] making it seem like being neutral or being uninvolved is the safe alternative. All of these are the collateral effects of police presence.”
Despite the police presence throughout the day, protesters gathered in song and dance on the lawn at the base of campus as the sun began to set.
In their first general assembly of the full teaching strike, graduate students expressed deep gratitude to undergraduates and faculty members who showed up in support of the strike and enthusiastically decided to continue picketing for another day.
Day 2 — Tuesday
Numbers at the picket increased from Monday to Tuesday as about 400 students, staff, faculty and community members gathered to stand their ground against a cohort of police ranging from about 30 to 60 officers throughout the day.
Around 11 a.m., three graduate student organizers and two members of the Faculty Organizing Group (FOG) left the picket to meet with interim CP/EVC Lori Kletzer at Kerr Hall to discuss four graduate student demands.
Kletzer refused the first three demands and agreed to the fourth. However, Kletzer and the graduate student organizers only set up a tentative time to meet on Wednesday, with no promises of a concrete offer by the administration.
“The university has been saying, ‘we simply cannot meet with you while the strike is ongoing,’” said lecturer Jeb Purucker. “They’re currently meeting with us and the strike is ongoing. So every time the administration says something is not possible, we need to take that with a grain of salt.”
Around midday, after members of FOG marched from the Women’s Center down to the picket line in solidarity, protesters linked arms and organized themselves to block all four crosswalks at the base of campus.
Soon after, police told protesters to stop blocking the intersection, at which point protesters walked, with arms still linked, toward the main lawn.
“Everything that we did today and yesterday was to de-escalate,” said UCSC PD Chief Nader Oweis.
Police officers remained in the Barn Theater parking lot holding helmets and batons until the end of the second graduate student assembly at 5:30 p.m.
At the assembly, which was held next to a FOG meeting on the lawn, graduate students discussed their strategy going forward and emphasized the importance of faculty support on the picket line in deterring police action.
“The nature of the open-ended strike is that we have to keep these possibilities open and keep collaborating with undergrads to see how best to serve all of us as things continue,” said history of consciousness doctoral student Jane Komori. “I think the general plan is to have all graduates meet at the picket line at the conclusion of every day and talk through any new developments and decide how to proceed the next day. So there will be lots of space for discussion and collective decision-making about how best to move forward.”
One graduate student announced that, earlier in the day, the Santa Cruz City Council unanimously voted to write a letter to Chancellor Cynthia Larive urging her to grant graduate students a COLA.
Graduate students voted overwhelmingly to continue the strike on Wednesday.
Day 3 — Wednesday
The third day of the strike saw a four-hour standoff between about 500 protesters and 100 police officers at the base of campus, the largest numbers from either group so far.
Beginning around 11:30 a.m., strikers and supporters moved into the street at the base of campus, blocking the intersection of Bay Street and High Street and linking arms. At noon, police told protesters they had five minutes to disperse. Protesters remained in the intersection.
By 12:15 p.m., about 350 protesters linked arms in the intersection while the rest stood on the lawn. Meanwhile, police officers from the UCSC PD and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office continued to congregate, forming a group of about 100 officers by 1 p.m.
As police moved in, protesters sat down in small circles of six to eight people with arms still linked. Officers surrounded several of the small groups and arrested a total of 17 people between noon and 2 p.m., including a UC Davis graduate student.
Around 2:30 p.m., organizers announced that 16 of the people arrested were cited and released at an off-campus location. One person who refused to provide their identity to the police remains in custody and is expected to be detained for another day, possibly longer.
At this time, police told protesters they could move onto Coolidge Drive and continue their assembly there as long as they left the rest of the intersection open. Otherwise, police said they would move in again.
Organizers held a collective vote to determine whether the group would move up Coolidge or remain in the intersection. By a chorus of passionate “Yea”s, the protesters decided to stay in the intersection.
The vigor of the picket line drew supporters from well beyond Santa Cruz.
“We were here and people came up to us immediately, making sure all of our needs are being met,” said one UC Davis graduate student who drove down early in the morning to experience the strike for themself. “Everyone was just making sure people were hydrated and had their sunscreen and were being fed and taken care of. It was amazing. Something special.”
Protesters and police remained at a standstill until about 3:30 p.m. when protesters moved en masse to the lawn on the northeast side of the Bay and High intersection to continue activities out of the road.
By 4 p.m., all but about 30 police officers had left the scene and about 200 protesters remained on the lawn, many singing, dancing and chanting.
As the sun began to set Wednesday evening, graduate students gathered in a circle on the lawn at the base of campus to debrief the day and collectively decide their plans for Thursday.
Co-President of the GSA Tony Boardman announced that in a meeting with interim CP/EVC Lori Kletzer earlier in the day, Kletzer said the university spent about $300,000 on police operations Tuesday. To put things in perspective, that’s enough to grant a COLA to 23 graduate students for nine months.
At the assembly, graduate student organizers also announced that Director of Employee and Labor Relations Jennifer Schiffner contacted the UAW 2865 president to set up a meeting this week.
“We were told by the president of our union that Jennifer Schiffner reached out to schedule a meeting,” said Veronica Hamilton, Santa Cruz unit chair of UAW 2865. “They would like us to pause the strike before having this meeting. We don’t anticipate that that’s a possibility, but we suggested having the meeting on the weekend, so that’s what I know.”
The details of the meeting are tentative, but the correspondence contradicts the administration’s consistent position to not meet with striking graduate students as employees.
“We are meeting with graduate students in their student capacity — not as unionized workers,” said UCSC Director of News and Media Relations Scott Hernandez-Jason, in an email.
Nevertheless, graduate students ended Wednesday’s strike feeling victorious for overcoming administrative backlash, grateful for widespread undergraduate and faculty support and determined to continue striking until they receive a COLA.
“My interactions with my own students from my sections and with undergraduate students across the campus have been the most inspiring, exciting part maybe of this whole thing,” said history of consciousness doctoral student Jane Komori. “Getting to talk about student debt and tuition hikes and their dreams for grad school and how all of this stuff is connected and to educate ourselves together about how this university works and how it should and could work differently if only we can take it back together, has been really, really wonderful and is one of the main things that keeps me going every day when I’m feeling tired and exhausted and frustrated.”
Additional reporting by Karen Lowe, Thomas Sawano, Chloe Selznick and Haneen Zain